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Blackhawks Thu Apr 15 2010

Blackhawks-Predators playoff preview

The Hawks and Predators haven't played each other since Dec. 27, but the two foes should find themselves on familiar ground pretty quickly once the puck drops Friday. Though the Blackhawks took the season series 4-2, all the games were tightly contested, and the playoffs should be more of the same.

Chicago's got the obvious advantage of depth and talent, but the Predators have the ingredients to make the series interesting.

Nashville is a team that can be deceptive. They gave up 4 more goals than they scored during the regular season, and their power play and penalty kill ranked 24th and 28th, respectively, yet they managed to score 100 points and earn their 5th playoff birth in 6 seasons, a testament to Barry Trotz's coaching ability and the team's system. The Predators play a trapping style of game, content to rely on their defense and take advantage of turnovers and mistakes to generate their offense. However, despite their consistency, they've yet to win a playoff series or win a road playoff game, a major factor given the Hawks 29-8-4 home record.

Here's how the teams stack up:

Forwards:

Nashville doesn't have a lot of scoring strength up front, but what they do have is fairly balanced. Though Patric Hornqvist and Martin Erat were the only two players to score more than 20 goals, (and Hornqvist and Steve Sullivan led the team with 51 points), 4 other Predators had at least 15 tallies.

Of course, Chicago had 6 players tally more points than Nashville's leading 51, led by Patrick Kane with 88 points. Kane also led the team with 30 goals, and had 5 other teammates net more than 20, and the team finished 3rd in the league in total goals. Chicago has enough firepower to win any series, and even their 4th line has gotten into the act recently, playing its best hockey of the year just as it was needed.

Defense:

The Preds' biggest strength is in there blue line core of Olympians Shea Weber and Ryan Suter, along with Dan Hamhuis. The extra time off should help the Predators get some rest for their top pair, who have played major minutes all year long. When at even strength, the Predators gave up the 10th fewest goals in the league, and for Nashville to have a chance the D will need to shut down the Hawks top line of Jonathon Toews, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.

Chicago's defense is definitely in flux, with both Brian Campbell and Kim Johnsson out with injury (though Campbell has just started skating and could return later in the series), but after struggling for a few months, the defense is back to controlling the puck and limiting shots. Chicago led the league in fewest shots allowed at just over 22 a game, and if they can continue that pace, there's no telling how deep of a run they can make. Dustin Byfuglien has shifted back to the blue line and played admirably,but the defense revolves around Duncan Keith, arguably the Hawks MVP this season, and Nicklas Hjalmarrson, who's stepped up his play and rounded into a top-flight D-man in Campbell's absence.

Goalies:

Entering the postseason, it's no stretch to say that the biggest concern for the Blackhawks is in net. Rookie Antti Niemi has claimed the starting role from Cristobal Huet, going 6-0-1 to finish the season, but will be playing in his first Stanley Cup playoffs, a sense of consternation for fans. Though Chicago was 6th in the league in goals against during the year, that was a product more of their defense than the man in the net. Niemi's had stretches of great play, and has looked good down the stretch, but Nashville will be testing him as much as possible.

However, in net for Nashville is Pekka Rinne, who had a strong year to claim the number one spot from Dan Ellis. Rinne went 12-4-1 since the Olympic break and had 7 shutouts for the entire year, including one against Chicago, but is also making his Stanley Cup debut. And coincidentally, Niemi had 7 shutouts on the year as well.

In fact, looking at the stats, the two Finnish goalies match up almost identically, with Niemi sporting a .912 save percentage to Rinne's .911. Niemi had the noticeably lower goals against at 2.25 to 2.53, but Rinne faced nearly 600 more shots and started 19 more games.

What that means is that while either goalie can get hot, the players in front of them will make or break this series more, a relief for the Blackhawks and a chance for Niemi get used to playoff intensity with just a slightly less bit of pressure on him.

Special Teams:

As stated above, Nashville's power play and penalty kill are a weakness the Hawks can exploit. Chicago's penalty kill was 4th in the league at 85.3 percent, though their power play has struggled, especially without Campbell to quarterback it. Special teams always have more importance come playoff time, and if the Hawks can find a way to score consistently with the man advantage, it could spell a short series.

Prediction:

Overall, while Nashville has the tools to turn the series into a slog, Chicago's depth up-front and puck control should be too much for the Predators to handle in a 7-game series, barring some major heroics from Rinne or a nuclear meltdown from Niemi. I don't see either one of those happening, and the Hawks move on to round 2 in 6 games.

 
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